Valuable Lessons from Harp Camp

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Harp in the Mountains ensemble

Playing at the Green Drake Gallery
(not pictured – Paige Setzer)

We had another fabulous week at this year’s Harp in the Mountains Summer Festival . As always happens at camp, I was reminded of some truths about practicing, performing, teaching and leadership that I’d like to share with you.

This is the sixth year for Harp in the Mountains Summer Festival. It is held at Hemlock Acres Campground in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, which is also my home. The camp provides a one-week intense harp ensemble experience for select students, ages 12-19. I limit camp size to six students, so the experience is very focused. The students have the opportunity to improve their harp playing and their musicianship skills while enjoying rehearsing, performing and spending time with other harpists.

And the campers had better enjoy rehearsing. We rehearse for about six hours every day. And we learn a lot during our week.

The British author Doris Lessing had a wonderful description of learning. She wrote, “You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.”  Here are five of my “understandings” from harp camp this year:

1. Students rise to the level of an immediate challenge. Performing music you have only a week to learn seems a daunting task for most students. Every year, I have students who are sure they will not be able to have their music prepared enough for the final concert. Yet, every year we have successful performances. The students play better and perform more difficult music than they thought they could. I love the look of wonder and surprise on a student’s face when she realizes she just played something she was certain was too hard for her. And I love knowing that she will take the knowledge of that achievement forward into her regular harp studies.

2. The whole IS greater than the sum of the parts. We don’t always think of music, especially harp playing, as a team sport, yet the team approach is the essence of ensemble playing. In any group of players there are some who are stronger than others. They have been playing longer, or have a deeper musical foundation, or are naturally more confident. But when the players combine their strengths, their weaknesses almost disappear.

3. Your colleagues can be your biggest cheerleaders. Team spirit rules. When everyone shares a goal, everyone also shares the individual struggles and victories that are part of achieving that goal. My favorite moment at the concert this week was seeing one student almost jump out of her chair and cheer aloud when another one played through a difficult passage successfully. Her enthusiastic support for her friend’s efforts was a fabulous demonstration of a true colleague.

4. Leadership is the most important part of teaching. In a week, it’s not possible to do very much regular teaching. All the detail work, the technical and musical refinement that is part of a music lesson is simply not possible in a week of camp. My aim is to help lead the students toward their goals. I can show them how to work together for a great performance. I can show them how to practice more effectively. I can help them discover new things about the harp and music. I can demonstrate respect for others, for the harp, for their teachers. I can listen and help them learn to listen. I can help them teach themselves.

5. Remember to let go. We all have things we cling to for safety, or because we don’t know another way, or perhaps because we don’t remember we have options. Camp week usually helps students begin to let go of some fears, regular teenage ones and musical ones. My hope is that their new-found confidence will grow during the year.

But this week I got my own reminder to let go. It came in the form of a gracious email from a good friend who had offered to help me with camp this year. I had gotten “too busy” to take her up on her offer. Her thoughtfulness reminded me that letting go is not only freeing, but it allows us to focus on what is really important. For my students, that may mean making music better. For me, it means being thankful for my wonderful friends.

Discussion question: What was the most important thing you learned from your teacher? From other students?

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